Pavlos (pavlos) wrote,

The weird British attitude to animals

I find the attitude to "animal welfare" seen in the English-speaking world, and mostly in Britain, a bit weird. Commendable in many ways, but weird. My general impression is that, where I would expect to see a diffuse and wide-ranging political movement, I see a set of narrow, unevenly shared forms of activism, such as vegetarianism, anti-hunting, anti-fur, etc. Some of these narrow issues seem open to questions about motives, namely whether they are really motivated by ethical or by class concerns.

I'm generally opposed to the suffering of animals. It's somewhat low in my list of sensitivities, ranking below the human victims of deep poverty, but above concerns such as the environment. For what it's worth I think we should be giving the animals a good deal, within practical constraints. We're not going to withdraw human settlement and allow animals free to live natural lives. It's also not obvious that that is a good deal for a sheep, if nature also includes wolves and disease and all, compared to a long life soaking the rain on a Scottish hill in perfect safety until some random point when humans come and kill it. So I'm OK with common-sense benign farming that ends in killing the animal, but what I find disgusting and morally indefensible is the horrid conditions in which the animals are treated by industrial farming.

To the point, I would expect the methods and beliefs of the animal welfare supporters to be quite similar to those of the people welfare supporters, but there I see some large discrepancies. The people against war and exploitation take an attitude of "I will make it my business, I will interfere, I will not let you get away with violence". On the other hand, vegetarians (slightly simplifying) take an attitude of "I shall not consume, I shall not encourage, I shall not accept into my body the flesh of the victim". One I expresses the public self, another the private. Why is it like that? Why don't the anti war people boycott, make a fuss, and demand labelling that reveals exploitation? Why don't the vegetarians demonstrate, insult meat eaters, and raise public debate? Is it just so far beyond the pail it would result in backlash, or is there some other reason?

One answer, probably with a lot of truth, would revolve around practicality. There is some historical experience that shows the methods of each group having some effectiveness. The two issues perhaps have a different standing in the eyes of the "silent majority" who don't actively desire evil but comfortably enjoy its products. This allows the anti-war people to make an effective, if slightly insincere, argument from justice, and the vegetarians an effective, if slightly insincere, argument from personal freedom. But how valid are these differences really? One could also see each campaign as inadequate, for the most obvious reasons (human rights fails to track the product of exploitation, animal rights fails to address everyone else's part in exploitation). The current situation seems a bit odd to me, and I would expect the two movements to have more convergent methods.

I also find that the British and greater English-speaking culture has a a rather contradictory relationship to animals and meat. On the one hand, animals are idolised and granted "rights", which is a status they lack in southern Europe and probably most other cultures. British animals are probably much better off than Italian or Chinese animals, both legally and in terms of people actually caring to stop abuses. And yet, British and American culture seem to equate "meal" with "meat", both at restaurants and in the cultural heritage that determines what people are used to or know how to cook. In Britain, if you are vegetarian you choose "the vegetarian option", which is usually something deficient or based on substitute meat. In fact you often order "the vegetarian", in those words. In southern Europe, if you don't want to eat meat you order one of the great variety of dishes the culture offers that are made with vegetables. You're also reasonably sure that the cooking doesn't involve unexpected animal products, such as fat, because it just doesn't.

There are other cultural factors too. At least in American culture it appears that steak is man's(*) God-given right, along with carrying guns and driving a large car. Not so in Italy, as far as I can see - I hesitate to use Greece because it's following the Americans in this respect. Another difference seems to be that in Britain and America meat is an alienated commodity that comes in a sealed tray on a supermarket shelf, and this encourages industrial farming of large animals. In Greece, or the Middle East, smaller animals are used, such as goats and sheep, and it's part of the social consciousness that what you're eating is one of the relatively happy beasts that you previously saw chewing leaves on the side of the road. Some people find this spooky, but I think maintaining the connection is important.

There is a further set of animal welfare concerns that, although certainly valid and good, seem almost comically open to the criticism that other motives (besides altruistic animal welfare) drive the activists. The classic one, which is a successful and practically "closed" case, is fur. Fur is now frowned upon unless you're from Siberia. Was that achieved because the population as a whole was sensitised to the unjust suffering or animals killed for fur, considering the wide range of substitutes, or because fur animals are cute and puppy-eyed and wearing fur is an obnoxious, status-displaying gesture of the upper class? I'd go for the political interpretation.

Similarly, the peculiar British "sport" of fox hunting is so unimaginably, blatantly, obviously a class and status issue that I would expect more honesty in treating it as such from both sides. By way of comparison, there's a somewhat more sensible kind of hunting practiced in Greece and other countries, where a man(*) goes to the hills with a shotgun and a dog and kills birds. This is also worth opposing, but in this case too as a social issue first - I don't like to grant social approval to macho men going around in groups with shotguns - and an animal welfare issue second. These are fine social concerns. Why not see them as social concerns?

(*) Yes, I do mean men.

PS. I started writing this a while ago and Graham's rant on animal experiments motivated me to post it.
Tags: animal welfare, britain, ethics, politiics, rant

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